Could Ralepelle's doping issues stem from being treated with disrespect?
When you’re caught for doping once, it could be a mistake. Anything more, you’re dipping your bread in paraffin and inviting trouble.
That’s the best way to explain Mahlatse “Chilliboy” Ralepelle’s ignominious end to a rugby career that promised so much, yet ended up being a paper fire. The fact that he never realised his immense potential as a hooker can’t be solely blamed on him, even though he’ll leave the game with the soiled reputation of a serial doper.
SA Rugby and the Bulls found various ways to subject him to doormat treatment, but they can’t be held liable for his doping issues. How they treated him when he played has to be put firmly at their door.
This week, 33-year-old Ralepelle was banned for eight years for a second doping offence (Zenarol), effectively ending his career.
In 2014, he was bust for doping while playing for Toulouse (drostanolone), while in 2010 he and Bjorn Basson were nabbed for methylhexanamine, but were exonerated because the stimulant was found in the Springbok-supplied supplement they were using.
Could his doping issues be born out of the frustration of being shunted from pillar to post when, at 19, he was earmarked as a future Springbok captain? We can never know.
After all, his was a career pockmarked by injuries at critical times and indifferent treatment at significant junctures.
The fact that in 2009 the Bulls moved loose-forward Derick Kuun to hooker while Ralepelle was on their books and a capped Springbok was the highest form of disrespect. It seemingly dogged his career at almost every turn.
Even when Ralepelle went to the 2011 Rugby World Cup as the third-choice hooker, the feeling persisted he drew the short straw as celebrated Bok captain John Smit shouldn’t have played ahead of Bismarck du Plessis.
It stunted Ralepelle, who at the time was showing glimpses of the potential that made him a feared schoolboy rugby prospect while at Pretoria Boys’ High School.
The disrespect didn’t stop there as he hardly featured for the Boks under Heyneke Meyer in 2012 and 2013 when he not only was the best hooker in the country while at the Bulls, but failed to get a fair crack ahead of Adriaan Strauss while Du Plessis shrugged off injury and made his way back into the Bok set-up with little rugby.
Ralepelle’s 2013 exit at the Bulls ironically paved the way for Strauss, who went on to rack up 66 Bok caps despite debuting two years after Ralepelle did and captained the national team in 2016, to join the Bulls.
Even at the Sharks, after his second doping matter, he was at the centre of bad treatment where then-coach Robert du Preez inexplicably picked Franco Marais and Armandt van der Merwe ahead of Ralepelle for the 2017 Currie Cup play-offs. At the time, Ralepelle was in the Bok set-up and was in need of game time ahead of the end-of-year tour.
The fact that Ralepelle started only four of his 25 Tests despite having debuted at Loftus Versfeld against a very strong All Black team in 2006 and played his last match against England on June 23 2018, speaks volumes of how the South African rugby game chewed him up and spat him out.
His doping issues are of his own doing and he needs to shoulder responsibility for that, but he’s not the first, nor the last player who’ll be nabbed for doping.
Lest we forget, former Lions coach Johan Ackermann was banned for two years for failing a drugs test in 1997, but came back not only to become the oldest capped Springbok but forged a successful coaching career. Cobus Visagie, who had his drugs ban overturned, and Johan Goosen, who was banned for three months in 2010, shrugged off their cases and continued their careers stress-free.
They are unlike Ralepelle, who is a repeat offender and has to serve as a lesson for players who don’t learn from their mistakes. Ralepelle has no-one but himself to blame, but it also can’t be forgotten that he was badly treated in the South African rugby system.